Can AI and Thought Leadership Coexist?

Photo by Rock'n Roll Monkey on Unsplash.

Since ChatGPT entered the scene last November, life – or at least your news feed – has never been the same.

You might find yourself wading through a daily deluge of AI-related announcements, success stories, and cautionary tales as you attempt to decipher the benefits and risks associated with generative AI (GenAI) for business.

As of September 2023, 42% of CFOs say their organizations are experimenting with GenAI. From the very beginning, members of the One Strategy Group team have been avid students of Generative AI and its potential impacts on corporate functions. One of the most controversial applications of AI is in thought leadership, which we’ll define as high-end content creation.

Let’s take a look at AI’s capabilities and limitations in the context of thought leadership, and explore why we believe the rise of GenAI will make “1% ideas” even more valuable. 

The state of thought leadership 

According to a 2021 report from LinkedIn and Edelman, 66% of global decision-makers believe the pandemic inspired a huge increase in thought leadership to support the accelerated adoption of digital selling. So, even before the democratization of GenAI, thought leadership content was on the rise.  Now that AI makes content production easy and nearly free, we can expect exponential growth going forward.

Not all content is good, though. Seventy-one percent of decision-makers report that half or less than half of the thought leadership content they consume provides valuable insights. We believe that number will plummet roughly on pace with the proliferation of generative content across platforms.

Decision-makers value quality thought leadership

Here it’s worthwhile to clearly delineate between content marketing and thought leadership. Content marketers often play a volume game.  Getting a brand in front of potential customers repeatedly is key to creating awareness at the top of the funnel. Often quantity is valued over quantity. Thought leadership, on the other hand, is a more bespoke offering – content that differentiates a company and executive. While keeping up with all the content available is challenging, people still value and rely on thought leadership in their decision-making, and most consumers are adept at spotting genuine thought leadership amidst a sea of content. In the 2022 edition of a LinkedIn thought leadership study, 61% of decision-makers say a company’s thought leadership can be moderately or a lot more effective at demonstrating the value of products or services compared to product-oriented marketing.

In addition to influencing purchasing decisions, thought leadership builds brand awareness, establishes trust and credibility, and creates connections with customers, prospects, employees, future hires, and investors.

We’ve seen Generative AI do a credible job of creating high-volume content marketing, where “good enough” is often enough.  At the same time, the best we can say about AI’s ability to create thought leadership is – to borrow the words of Fortune CEO Alan Murray – “not half bad.”

Many of us have had a similar experience: We enter a prompt asking ChatGPT to write a 700 word op-ed on a given topic, providing some initial thoughts and points we want to make. Seconds later, we get an impeccably written piece that seems, at first glance, like a miracle. The closer we read it, though, the less it holds up – kind of like a dinner party guest who sounds brilliant during cocktail hour, but when you sit down at the table and engage in a deeper conversation, you realize they don’t have more substance than the handful of one-liners you already heard.

This all makes sense. Right now, Generative AI functions like the world’s fastest intern. It reviews everything it can find on a given topic and reassembles that body of thought into a new, well-formed package. Thought leadership, though, requires original thought.

The increasing value of the “big idea”

The articles and videos that stand out, today and moving forward, will be the ones that offer input and insights that are original and compelling. These may be needles in an ever-growing haystack as more companies rely on GenAI for content creation.

AI can certainly help with elements of thought leadership planning and execution, but not the fundamental challenge of coming up with novel opinions and big ideas worth your audience’s time. To generate these “1% ideas,” executives need support from human strategists with domain expertise.

Where we are headed

Our role at One Strategy Group is to help companies build the processes, teams, and strategies they will need tomorrow, and beyond. We will continue to test and experiment with AI to understand its capabilities and limitations – for our clients’ benefits, and our own.

As our team’s comfort level with prompt engineering improves, so, too, do the outputs AI generates on our behalf. We will keep refining our approach and sharing best practices internally and with clients.

One of the questions we are not hearing people ask enough, though, is how much better AI will get from here. In the years ahead, will it inch up the food chain and wind up the smartest, most experienced employee in the room? Or will it hit a wall where it can’t replicate a seasoned executive’s ability to operate not from fact but from muscle memory and intuition?

We will be monitoring this with interest. In the meantime, as people and companies' reliance on AI for content generation increases, so, too, will the value of 1% ideas – the truly high-level thinking that makes good on thought leadership’s potential to persuade and engage a target audience.